Australian forests continue to be cleared at globally significant levels, reports say

Published 03:51 on January 5, 2023  /  Last updated at 11:08 on January 5, 2023  / Mark Tilly /  Biodiversity

A series of reports have found Australian forests are continuing to be cleared at globally significant levels, to the point where some could become net carbon emitters in the coming decades in the face of the ever-increasing impacts of climate change while putting domestic biodiversity under pressure.

Updated to include Queensland government announcement on par 22

A series of reports have found Australian forests are continuing to be cleared at globally significant levels, to the point where some could become net carbon emitters in the coming decades in the face of the ever-increasing impacts of climate change while putting domestic biodiversity under pressure.

A report recently released by the New South Wales’ Natural Resource Commission said NSW forests were “degrading, and without major intervention they will continue to degrade”.

It said the combination of the rising likelihood of a bushfire event similar to the 2019-20 Black Summer fires, and other drivers like invasive species, population growth, economic growth, and urban and agricultural sprawl will continue to put pressure on the state’s forests.

“Business as usual management approaches and reactive policy decision making will lead to sub-optimal outcomes at best, or ecosystem and industry collapse under worst case scenarios,” the report said.

The report said there is a risk that the higher frequency and intensity of disturbances will trigger ongoing cycles of decline in key areas such as forest regeneration and soil organic carbon by reducing forest’s ability to recover after each event.

In this case, forests will become a net carbon emitter in the coming decades, undermining the NSW state government’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the report said.

It referred to a recent study that indicated that burnt area and frequency of megafires is already increasing, with decreases in the mean number of years since the last fire observed over the last four decades.

The report called for increased monitoring of soil and forest recovery to determine its rate, and thus carbon capture, is meeting expectations, with the ability to intervene to improve regeneration outcomes as needed.

Immediate actions the report recommended included reducing the rates of land clearing, addressing grazing pressure in forests, and investing in pest and weed control – particularly horse, fox, feral cat, and deer control.

More longer-term actions the report suggested included native forest restoration, improving forest road networks to reduce sedimentation in extreme rainfall events, and invest in protection of species at high risk from climate change, including potential assisted migration of species.

The report noted that the NSW government has committed A$93 million ($63 mln) to deliver its Climate Change and Adaptation Strategy over the next eight years.

“Given the policy context and likely future challenges, the time is right for renewed and sharper focus on forests and the essential values and services they provide,” it said.

The report pointed to the National State of the Environment report to highlight the same repeated issues, such as species decline, increasing risks, and inadequate management responses were occurring across multiple jurisdictions.

Elsewhere, Queensland government figures released last month show over 668,000 ha of forest and bushland had been destroyed between 2018-19 – around a quarter of which were destroyed in Great Barrier Reef catchments.

The figures, highlighted by conservation group the Wilderness Society, were sourced from the government’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study.

The report said 93% of the land clearing was to make way for pasture to support livestock, which the Wilderness Society said almost three-quarters of this is likely to be for beef production.

“While the state government strengthened its deforestation laws in 2018, deforestation and land clearing is clearly continuing at a globally significant rate,” Anita Cosgrove, Queensland campaign manager at the Wilderness Society said.

“This is disastrous for the environment — land clearing is a threatening process for many of Australia’s threatened plants and wildlife.”

Queensland government data from 2019-20 showed 418,656 ha of land were bulldozed that year, more than half of which was older than 15 years.

“Queensland government has world class data and vegetation scientists. The data shows that clearing is not just immature regrowth. There is a deforestation issue in Queensland, and now is the time to work together to address it,” World Wildlife Fund Australia Project Manager Vanessa Keogh said in a statement last month.

WWF used the findings to urge the government to close loopholes in regulations, improve incentives to support livestock producers to become deforestation-free, and increase transparency of relevant data.

On Thursday, the Queensland government announced an additional 43,000 ha of land across the state would be protected as a mix of new and expanded nature reserves, and additions to national parks.

“But we know there’s more work to do, which is why the Palaszczuk government is investing A$262.5 million to expand and create new national parks – the single biggest investment in Queensland’s history,” state Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon said.

“It’s great to see this batch include a number of nature refuges, areas that Queensland landholders have nominated to protect the critical ecosystems, plants and creatures that live within it.”

Australia National University Professor and former head of the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee Andrew Macintosh told Carbon Pulse landholders needed to be provided with government incentives to reduce land clearing.

“We’re doing a bit of that, but we’re not doing enough of it, particularly in Queensland and in New South Wales,” he said.

“I think that’s an area where the state government and also the federal government can look at, and hopefully improve.”

Macintosh echoed WWF’s comments saying there are holes in both state and federal regulation that needed to be closed, particularly around the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act, adding that direct funding into restoration and conservation work was also needed.

“We are certainly an outlier in terms of the amount of remnant clearing that still goes on in our country relative to other developed nations,” he said.

“There’s a hell of a lot of scope for [government] investment. At the moment, we’re not doing it, and when we are doing, it’s not in a way that’s sufficiently targeted, and that’s where I think we can make great improvements.”

By Mark Tilly –

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